Farah Al Qasimi, Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire), 2019, HD video, color, sound, 42 minutes 7 seconds.

Farah Al Qasimi, Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire), 2019, HD video, color, sound, 42 minutes 7 seconds.

Farah Al Qasimi

The Persian Gulf is beginning to feel decidedly witchy, with artists and filmmakers in the region increasingly drawn to local folklore and superstitions, referencing cultural practices involving the supernatural and occult that were once common but are increasingly taboo, even sometimes outlawed. Channeling this zeitgeist, Farah Al Qasimi’s “Arrival” explored beliefs and rituals related to the jinn—divinely created beings in Islamic mythology, invisible entities widely feared for their ability to possess humans—in the United Arab Emirates.

The show’s centerpiece was the roughly forty-two-minute video Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire), 2019, a tongue-in-cheek portrait of a jinn hailing from Ras Al Khaimah, one of the smaller, less-developed northern emirates that was once an important regional power. The protagonist’s wonderfully primeval name references both myth and history, acknowledging at once the jinn’s fiery origin story and the prehistoric culture associated with the earliest archaeological remains in the area. Um Al Naar narrates her story in the style of a reality-television confessional, recounting the region’s history of colonization and lamenting her diminishing relevance as the country’s breakneck modernization has resulted in a withdrawal from traditional beliefs, customs and practices, which are sanitized and packaged for easy consumption as “heritage” in the region’s Western-style megamuseums. These sequences are intercut with footage of haunted sites, such as the nearby ghost town of Al Jazirat Al Hamra, anecdotal accounts of encounters with jinn, and interviews with an exorcist. Like the format it is modeled on, it is unclear what, if anything, is really real.

Throughout the film, Um Al Naar appears draped in a patchwork of cheap floral sheets, a masklike face crudely appliquéd on the front; the outfit is part uninspired DIY Halloween look, part Sesame Street character. Besides being a great comedic device, the costume also references zār, an exorcism ritual in which sheets are used to cover the possessed, who sway and rock under them as the jinn is coaxed out through music and song. Found footage of such ceremonies appears in the film, along with that of another taboo practice: m’alayah, a regional variant of twerking often performed at weddings. Rather than approaching the jinn as a cultural curiosity, Al Qasimi cleverly uses the process to mount a critique of prevailing gender norms and the patriarchal control of women’s bodies, especially in public. Her protagonist, designated female but with a masculine voice, projects a fluid, nonbinary definition of gender, while Al Qasimi herself, in comically minimal drag, plays the exorcist Baba Ali, the jinn’s primary antagonist. The film ends with an extended montage of women of different ages dancing ecstatically, with abandon, as if possessed. Um Al Naar, who loves to dance (an admission reinforced by colorful motion graphics), becomes an archetype for the irrepressible desire for freedom and autonomy expressed through the body, and dancing emerges as a necessary form of individual libidinal release and communal catharsis.

A group of photos accompanying the video, largely interior studies and still lifes, revel in visual excess. The images blurred distinctions between the natural and artificial, surface and substance. One showed a trio of chicks dyed in unnatural colors. Two others were close-ups of roses, one carefully carved out of a tomato, the other made of pink buttercream. In the Caravaggesque S Eating Watermelon, 2016, a woman uses a knife to eat the lurid-red flesh of a ripe watermelon. An uncanny claustrophobia pervaded these images. They were haunted by bodies that are never wholly present, that are fragments shrouded under lavish decoration or suggested through objects that have caressed them intimately. An eerie echo of a female face, floating mysteriously at the center of A’s Reflection, 2019, personified that absence. The photographs seemed to suggest that the materialism and consumerism that have accompanied modernization in the UAE might also be a type of possession, perhaps one more malignant than that of the jinn.